Social Media

Mascots might be the key to a successful TikTok strategy for brands

CC: The Duolingo owl.
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Duolingo, Sour Patch Kids, Empire State Building, Mucinex

· 5 min read

The TikTok algorithm works in mysterious ways, but one thing’s for sure: Brand mascots have been popping up left and right on the platform lately.

Duolingo’s owl mascot, Duo, might be the category’s A-lister, helping the language-learning app rack up nearly 3 million followers on TikTok (compare that with McDonald’s, which currently has 2 million).

But Duolingo isn’t alone. Brands including Sour Patch Kids and The Empire State Building are also leaning into mascots as part of their TikTok strategy, finding that characters seem to resonate with users more than other types of content. While none have been able to pin down exactly why mascots perform especially well on the platform, some think it’s because they provide an easy vehicle for jumping on TikTok’s quickly changing trends.

Flying high

Duo’s often seen jumping on the same TikTok trends as its users. One recent video shows a crowd of people applauding Duo as a Christian worship song (that’s currently trending on TikTok) with the lyrics “our God is an awesome God” plays in the background. Text overlaid on the video says “when all you can say in French is bonjour.” It’s a little unhinged in the best way, as popular TikTok content often is.

But the brand hasn’t been committed to Duo from day one. When Duolingo first started creating TikTok content in February 2021, it tested lots of different TikTok strategies that didn’t include its mascot, Zaria Parvez, Duolingo’s social media coordinator, told Marketing Brew. Think: language-learning influencers teaching the audience words for different foods or slang in other languages. 

Even though Parvez said that content seemed on-brand to her and, on average, received between 20k and 30k views, she noticed a huge jump in views when Duolingo started using its mascot in TikToks later that year. The mascot content “easily” generated a million views, Parvez told us.

Of course, it’s possible that TikToks featuring Duo only performed better than Duolingo’s early TikToks because they debuted after the account had some time to gain momentum. To be sure the increase in views came from Duo’s presence rather than time, Parvez tested some more Duo-free content later in the year. But those videos still didn’t perform as well as the content with the owl in it.

Currently, Parvez told us, Duolingo’s mascot-centric videos average 3–5 million views, with some hitting as many as 22 million. The brand’s TikTok content is all organic, with zero dollars spent on advertising.

The drawbacks to putting someone in a giant Duo costume for the videos are mostly logistical, per Parvez. “It’s hard to fit the suit through doors,” she joked.

TikTok and mascots, sitting in a tree…

Abigail Rickards is the VP of marketing for Empire State Realty Trust. She’s the brains behind the Empire State Building’s TikTok strategy, which also heavily features its two mascots: the building itself, and King Kong. Picture a photo of the Empire State Building with eyes and lips taking part in TikTok trends, and you’ve basically got the strategy down.

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Rickards, too, found that more mascot content equals more TikTok success.

“Consistently, our mascot content performs best” based on overall engagement rate, Rickards told us, explaining that she’s tested many other types of content on the account, such as videos of celebrities visiting the building, helicopter shots of NYC, and even posts about major weather events. Over the last five months, she said the account’s follower count has grown over 400%, which she attributes to mascot content.

For the Empire State Building, Rickards said, the mascot has provided a quick and easy way to jump on TikTok trends with agility. With a mascot, “you don't have to have someone going out and getting tons of video,” she explained, adding that it doesn’t take as much time to create and edit a video of a character as shooting an entirely new concept would.

Shelby Jacobs, a social strategist at digital agency 360i who manages Sour Patch Kids’ TikTok, told us the candy brand’s top five most-watched TikToks of 2021 all involved its signature mascot. She thinks it’s partly due to creator culture.

“We’re almost turning the mascots into creators themselves,” she said.

The ’Tok stands alone

The success isn’t necessarily translating to other social platforms, though.

Duolingo’s Parvez said she’s tried posting TikTok content featuring Duo to Instagram Reels, and that the performance overall wasn’t as impressive on IG. But she doesn’t blame Duo.

“The audiences are just different” on the two platforms, she said, explaining that while she might craft a TikTok featuring Duo around something that is trending on TikTok, like an audio clip, the same trend might not be relevant on Instagram. On the whole, its Reels have gotten significantly less traction than its TikToks (although it’s only posted six so far). For instance, Duolingo said one of its “average-performer” TikTok videos that has 1.7 million views only saw 118k when posted on Reels.

“We find that Instagram users are really aspirational,” Rickards explained, adding that, like Duolingo, the Empire State Building’s mascot videos only did well on its TikTok account. On Instagram Reels, videos of authentic NYC experiences that are more aesthetically driven—like views of the city captured from the top of the building—have been more successful.

“The mascot videos don’t perform well on any other platform. We’ve tested it out—they really only perform well on TikTok,” Rickards said.

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